Legacy – Senyonyi discusses lessons learned, offers advice for successor

Originally posted at: https://www.ugandapartners.org/2020/07/legacy-senyonyi-discusses-lessons-learned-offers-advice-for-successor/


The Rev. Canon Dr. John Senyonyi, seated, with his wife, Ruth, and children and grandchildren in 2017
The Rev. Canon Dr. John Senyonyi, seated, with his wife, Ruth, and children and grandchildren in 2017

At the end of August 2020, the Rev. Canon Dr. John Senyonyi says farewell to 19 years of service at Uganda Christian University (UCU), having come first in 2001 as a chaplain. He has been vice chancellor since 2010. He retires in the midst of COVID-related, government orders of education shutdowns. In this last segment of a two-part series, UCU Vice Chancellor Senyonyi gives his thoughts on various aspects of his leadership and the university. John Semakula, a UCU graduate and lecturer, conducted this interview on July 6.  

What key lessons have you learned as the Vice-Chancellor?
There is one fallacy. When we need someone to manage a university, academic qualification lends more weight than other requirements. To the best of my knowledge, if you are to manage a university, academic qualifications are necessary, but I would not even put them as number one.  On the contrary, leadership qualities like listening, knowing that you are serving people, setting aside your own selfishness, being available and strategic thinking are more important. I also have learned that when it comes to managing people, it becomes more complex than even managing things like financial or building resources. The relationship with people is what is very critical because it is what will give you the respect and confidence to serve. If the people you lead don’t have respect in you, it doesn’t matter what you do.

Former UCU Vice Chancellor, Dr. Stephen Noll, right, and John Senyonyi, left, with Henry Luke Orombi, former Archbishop of the Church of Uganda
Former UCU Vice Chancellor, Dr. Stephen Noll, right, and John Senyonyi, left, with Henry Luke Orombi, former Archbishop of the Church of Uganda

Any lessons on financing for a private University?
There is one mistake that many managers of academic institutions make –  that is to think that you must always look outside yourself to get the resources you need to manage an institution. What happens quite often is if it is a public institution, it looks to government to finance its activities. If it’s a private institution, at this present time, many don’t even know what to do at all. But you have got to be creative. It’s a wrong model to always turn to government for money that it does not usually have. My argument has always been that government should give us the right environment to operate in terms of taxation, or if we are talking about land to allow us to observe the law of ownership. Unless that is done, it becomes impossible for the institution to own land in a meaningful way. Many people have also come to me to benchmark thinking that UCU relies heavily on foreign funding. However, for the last 10 years, I can stand here and testify that I have received no foreign support for any capital development. None whatsoever, they have supported scholarships for students and things like that, but definitely no windfall of money that has put up a classroom building or worked on the roads and so forth. So this business of thinking that an outsider will finance what you need to do, I think for me, has been a very big lesson.

What has been the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on the infrastructure at UCU?   When buildings are not in use, they fall into disrepair, and that is what brings me pain and anxiety. I start wondering how much the University will invest to repair them when eventually it reopens, especially if it takes very long to get them back to tenantable condition.

Has government promised to finance private universities in the lockdown?
What I have heard government say is not about providing grants, but loans. Once you talk of a loan, the first thing that someone will always have to think about is how to access it in a responsible way according to your cash-flows, both present and projected. We can’t take a loan at this time when we are even rescheduling the loans we had.  If it was a grant, I would have been at the door of the government knocking so that I can support my staff. Government did indeed ask us how much we need to survive per month, which I sent them. We sent them our monthly bill that has payroll and utilities, above shb1.7bn (roughly $460,000), but I am not very sure that they are going to do anything more. I would be very happy if they can. I wrote a letter to His Excellency the President and to the Minister of Education (also the first lady),asking for support for private universities. Right now government is supporting public universities by paying salaries of staff and all that, but who is taking care of our staff? So the ball is pretty much in the hands of government to ensure that there is some support that comes to us as private institutions.

Why did UCU suspend staff contracts during the COVID-19 lockdown?
The suspension is like putting on hold any obligations or liabilities that the University would have had toward those staff members, and it was to help save resources so that the University remains afloat even minimally. The suspension is saying that for the time being, you are a staff member, but we have no obligation and liabilities with respect to your benefits. I have to admit that probably, for all my 10 years as Vice-Chancellor or even for the 20 years I have been at the University, it was the most painful thing to do to look at all your staff and say we are not going to hold responsibility for paying your salary, well knowing it’s their livelihood.

Will the staff be paid the salary arrears in future?
To promise that we shall pay the salary in arrears later is to make the assumption that for this period we shall be getting revenue that accrues to that time. Only public institutions can operate that way.

What piece of advice do you have for the incoming Vice-Chancellor?
Fortunately, we are already doing some orientation sessions with him and they are going very well. To me I think that has been very helpful. We are exposing him to the full breadth of what I have been involved with. But I would say that first and foremost, he is coming from outside so it’s much better and foremost to be a listener. Implementation is not normally the best thing to start immediately. Leadership is like trying to place interlocking bricks.  Before I place it, I need to know what fits where. Listening is critical to achieve that and will give him an opportunity to also understand the systems that are in place. He will of course be free to change according to his vision, but when you change before you have listened, it appears like you want to rub away what others have done. The problem with that is that you think you are changing what your predecessor has done, but you are also rubbing away all those people that are connected with it and may still be on staff. You are telling them that what they were doing is useless and that it was not the best way of doing it.

Any spiritual advice for your successor on how to handle staff and spirituality?
The best people that will help him to settle down are within the University – not without. They are the ones he is going to live and work with. Other people may advise, but ultimately he needs to make sure that he connects with the staff rather than trying to create a relationship gap with them. What he does with staff members also becomes important with students. On the spiritual side, he is a Christian, which is very excellent. It will be very important for him who is not an ordained person not to relinquish his role as the spiritual leader in the University. That role may be carried out differently because he is not going to stand and lead services, he may not even be a preacher. He may not do the same thing that I have been doing, but his spiritual leadership is important to ensure that whatever has been in place in terms of spiritual leadership continues.

What advice do you have for the new Chancellor?
I think the job of the new chancellor is easier. First and foremost, I think giving opportunities for the Vice-Chancellor and his leadership team to meet with him on a regular basis. One of the things we did here to ensure that we meet him quite often almost every semester was simply to create pastoral visits for the Chancellor. He comes and interacts with different people. There may also be time when the Vice-Chancellor may need to have a one on one or an opportunity away from here. Secondary for the Chancellor, one of the most critical things is to keep in mind that UCU is the Provincial University. Therefore, as Archbishop, he has the responsibility to ensure that the Provincial nature of this University is protected before the eyes of the Church. That means that all the bishops have a stake in the University. Unlike other Anglican founded Universities, when it comes to UCU, all the dioceses under the Province must see their responsibility and the chancellor is key in ensuring that they understand this such that they don’t look at the University like any other.

What has been your biggest challenge as the Vice-Chancellor in the last 10 years
Inevitably, everything goes back to meager resources because if you wanted to get very good staff members and to furnish classrooms, you need the resources. When I talk about infrastructure, it still goes back to resources. Essentially what you are looking at is a University that depends almost entirely, more than 90 percent on student tuition. When you are in that kind of situation, you have got to put more weight on students to pay up. But if they don’t pay up, they won’t get the services. So it’s the issue of resources that has been my biggest headache. I sleep and wake up thinking about resources.

What is management doing to overcome the burden of inadequate resources?
We have tried various ways to think of how we can harness some resources from the University particularly using our land from Ntawo, but then the problem is that squatters have put down their foot. They don’t want to compensate not even entering a relationship with the University that owns that land. That means that the University that owns this prime land, which we could have used to build an endowment can’t. So the issue of resources stands out as the one challenge that any Vice-Chancellor needs to come too and resolve.

What is the biggest challenge awaiting the new Vice-Chancellor?
It’s still the same, inadequate resources. Some people quite often think that research money will bridge the financial gap. Research money will come and may be used to purchase some equipment, put up a building, but people are not going to give you money to run the University. Inevitably the biggest challenge that I think the new Vice-Chancellor will face is to ensure that there are resources that do not come from abroad that depend on any external factors other than the fact that the University has its own resources.

What advice do you have for the staff members you are leaving behind?
Welcome the incoming Vice-Chancellor warmly because as much as his own handling of staff is important for that relationship to advance the mission of the University, it’s also true that unless staff members are open to welcome him, it also becomes problematic. Secondary, my experience in a University like this is that unless you feel a sense of calling to do this work, I am afraid it becomes very difficult for one to get the job satisfaction. It’s very easy to come here and do your work more or less for what you are going to get at the end of the month. That is important because people should get their pay, but if that is all that attracts you to UCU, you will not get the satisfaction. Staff members should take pride in a few years down the road to be able to look back and say I contributed to that University that there is a brick I put there.

How have you avoided the temptation to mismanage University finances?
There is no position I have assumed because I am going to earn. Earning? Yes, I do, but I do whatever job as a vocation. This is my third station because I started from Makerere University. Then God called me and I spent another 13 years in an evangelical organization. I didn’t come here until I was convinced that God was calling me to serve. I knew he was calling me to be the University chaplain. Later, it was quite a bit of convincing to come out of the chaplaincy to be the deputy Vice-Chancellor. Eventually God just said; you will go whether you like it or not. When the Vice-Chancellor’s slot was falling vacant, ideally I was refusing to apply.  I remember asking the then Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Stephen Noll whether I had to apply. He was encouraging. I still said no, and eventually it was my youngest son who convinced me by asking me a very serious theological question. He said: “If you don’t apply, how will you know that God is choosing you to serve in that capacity?”  So that is when I applied, but it was like saying I don’t care if I don’t get it. When I am serving, I see money or resources and power as what God has equipped me with to serve others. Proverbs 22:1 says a good name is to be treasured more than riches. But for many people, when they get a job, it’s getting rich that becomes the most important. For me according to that verse, the most important thing is to have a good name. I want to be able to go through this University with an untarnished name.

Any piece of advice for the students as you leave?
I think I have grieved more for the students than anything. The reason I grieve for the students is very simple; I went to the University of Nairobi a year before they had had a lockdown of the University for five months. The University of Nairobi used to be closed quite a bit. So when I look at these students I feel that what those others at the University of Nairobi went through. At least for them they had government supporting them. But this lockdown has created a situation where the students have suffered a setback by months and it may even be by years in terms of their career development. Secondary what will happen when they go out? Will the job market still be the same? That itself may set them back for years because the job market is going to struggle to get back to its rails. I feel for them.

The interviewer, John Semakula, is a graduate of Master of Arts in Journalism and Media Studies of Uganda Christian University (UCU). Currently, he works as the supervisor of The Standard newspaper and lecturer of journalism and Communication at UCU. John worked as a Senior Writer with the New Vision newspaper for eight years.


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